Stress is a great health burden in our society with many associated illnesses. According to an estimate of the World Health Organisation, in 2020 direct and indirect consequences of stress will be the second leading cause of disease. However, people vary in their responses to stressors and not everybody shows the same sensitivity and reactivity to an identical stressful stimulus. This might of course be linked to variations in health consequences as well, since subjects who respond to stressors more easily or strongly might be more at risk of developing a stress-related illness.
Investigating the possible origins of interindividual differences in stress responsivity is one of the research themes of the laboratory of Dr. Jens Pruessner. In several studies, he has been able to repeatedly show how a specific set of personality variables, especially self-esteem and locus of control, are systematically linked to these different types of stress responses. In a series of studies involving structural Neuroimaging, he has since investigated the integrity of brain structures involved in the regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and thus the endocrine stress response, and has found the volume of the hippocampus to be systematically and inversely related to the magnitude of the endocrine stress response, and positively correlated to the personality variables self-esteem and locus of control.
Further, in a set of recent functional neuroimaging studies, he has been able to show how the central nervous system perceives and processes stress through a network of specific structures in the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex, and how activation changes in the hippocampus and the anterior cingulate specifically seem to be related to the initiation of the endocrine stress response especially in subjects with low self-esteem.
In summary, these studies contribute to a better understanding of the neural mechanisms of stress processing, and how this is affected by differences in personality. Future studies of his laboratory aim to determine the impact of these personality differences on brain integrity and endocrine regulation across the life span.